|Today’s scripture reading: Acts 8:26-39|
One of the things I’ve noticed this year is a proliferation of bills in state legislatures that would criminalize various acts of hospitality to transgender people. In states across the country, it’s becoming more difficult or even illegal for trans youth to participate in school or sports as their true selves, and for doctors to conduct gender-affirming hormone treatment or medical care. Just as bans on gay marriage were used twenty years ago as an electoral wedge issue, so now anti-transgender bills are popping up around the country and here in Minnesota, targeting a small minority community to achieve something in the “culture wars”.
What’s most grievous to me are the ways that Christianity is again being deployed to justify bias against queer people and enshrine it into law. This church has affirmed since 2010 “the dignity and worth of every person”, inviting into full membership and participation all people regardless of gender identity. Yet elsewhere, a narrow-minded and close-hearted Christianity is being used to justify the “religious freedom” to discriminate against people who seek to live and thrive according to their gender identity that comes from God. As American culture becomes more global, more concerned with the equality of women, more conscious of White supremacy, and more welcoming to the LGBTQ community, some people (especially those who used to benefit from the old hierarchies) respond with reactive harshness. The sometimes-bewildering and fast-paced changes of recent decades have led some to fearfully legislate for stricter rules, judge who is following them correctly, and punish those who fall outside the bright lines of what is “normal”. Yet God’s transgender people suffer mentally, physically, and spiritually in this push, and their sinful wounding breaks the heart of our all-welcoming, fabulous Creator.
However, there’s another Christian response to the bewildering disorientation of new cultural circumstances, and we see it in today’s Scripture—what happens on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. We read that “this is a wilderness road”, but instead of serving up fear, this road shows a remarkable, life-changing encounter in early Christianity. In a chariot on the road, we meet a fascinating character, an Ethiopian eunuch who has great wealth and an interest in Hebrew scriptures. Eunuchs fall outside the binaries of male and female in ancient civilizations, and in some places are thus forbidden from participating in religious life. At the same time, eunuchs were sometimes trusted advisors given great authority, as is the case here with this man, “a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.” His wealth and privilege are evident in the fact that he’s riding a chariot, possessing a rare scroll of Isaiah and able to read it, yet being a dark-skinned Ethiopian among the Middle Eastern Arabs would have set him apart as an outsider and a curiosity. Would his skin color or accent have affected how he was received in Palestine? Furthermore, we hear that he was “returning from worship” in Jerusalem, so he’s interested in Jewish religious life, which would have differed from his own. As another writer has noted, in this multi-layered biblical figure “we have a non-binary black man traveling between Israel and Ethiopia reading a religious text not of his own tradition.”
Coming alongside him is Philip, one of the new deacons who was elected and affirmed to care for the community in last week’s Scripture reading. Philip gets an angelic call to leave Jerusalem and go toward Gaza—he sets out without knowing precisely what he’s going to do. Alongside the road, the Holy Spirit gives him another nudge: “go toward that chariot”. Each step of Philip’s approach to the eunuch is laid out partially, unveiling mystery, inviting him to trust the wisdom of God rather than his own certainties. Caring Philip, this deacon and community servant, leads with curiosity rather than a desire to coerce the eunuch or control their conversation. I love how these strangers meet, and interact through repeated questions. “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I, unless someone guides me?” The eunuch invites Philip into the chariot, and then while discussing the passage from Isaiah, more questions. “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then later: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” When the eunuch expresses earnest curiosity, Philip speaks the good news about Jesus, but he does so without coercion, while respecting the journey of the other. This whole encounter proceeds through generous and mutual discovery, rather than some formulaic plan of evangelism or conquest. Philip and the eunuch demonstrate what theologian Tripp Fuller describes as “open and relational Christianity”, a faith orientation that trusts questions, curiosity and connection as the manger in which Christ is born today. Such Christian faith does not seek to control through rigid laws and rules, but rather forms sacred, mutual relationships across our differences as people.
Beloveds of God and siblings in Christ, we are not on the wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza, but we are in a wilderness time. 21st century American life offers a smorgasbord of religious and ethical commitments among our neighbors, schoolmates, colleagues and family members. Conflict is common because the differences between people are seen as obstacles to overcome rather than opportunities for curious relationship. Hence, we feel the bewilderment of racial violence, political division and family strife. And we’ve seen plenty of the fearful White Christian desire to dominate and coerce in response to growing diversity and societal change. These are the impulses to control those who are identified as “Other”: controlling bodies through anti-trans and anti-woman legislation, controlling politics through rigged election systems and voter suppression, controlling communities of color through over-policing and under-investment. This congregation knows that is not a flourishing testimony to the love of God in Jesus, but we can be at a loss for how to proceed instead. God gives us the example of Philip and the eunuch’s encounter to show a better way, seeking to do God’s will through curiosity, mutuality, openness, and relational faith.
Reflecting on the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin this week, the national UCC leader Rev. Traci Blackmon demonstrated the difference between such legal and open-hearted approaches. Writing on Facebook, she highlights a core biblical understanding:
“True justice is the restoration of right relationship between God and humanity and right relationship among humanity. What we call justice in our judicial system is really measured vengeance. Even if every person who has ever committed murder were executed on death row, right relationship would not be restored. But vengeance would be achieved. Courts cannot legislate justice. Courts can influence behavior. Courts should ensure there are consequences for harmful behavior. …That’s not justice. But it is necessary. Justice occurs when hearts are changed. …Is justice possible? Yes it is. But only through submission to radical love.”–Rev. Traci Blackmon, United Church of Christ
In a world governed by rules, laws, punishment and coercion, Christians are called to the higher biblical standard of justice, which is a healing love rooted in relationship, hospitality and mutual care. At the end of today’s passage, we see how such open and relational faith extends welcome. As a eunuch, the Ethiopian has been limited by specific barriers to what he can do. In the Jerusalem temple, he would have experienced scriptural and cultural prohibitions on how much he could participate in the religious life. Deuteronomy forbids eunuchs from entry all the way into God’s presence at the temple; he would have been stopped before fully entering community. That’s why he asks Philip near the end: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He’s been primed for rejection, used to people of faith setting up barriers, and accustomed to laws that exclude him from full participation. Yet Philip, guided by the Holy Spirit, has none of that in mind. If God’s grace is imparted through the water and sacrament of baptism, what’s to prevent ANYONE from being baptized? No, we see instead the radical inclusion of faith: No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome!
In this spirit, then, let us together build a community where nobody, no body, is excluded for what they look like, where they live, who they love, how much money they have, their abilities, or anything else. Let us advocate alongside and work hard in the direction of such a community by acting in solidarity across racial, religious, ethnic, cultural and wealth divisions. Let us pursue justice which is not legal constraints, but right relationships. Let us show the curiosity, vulnerability, and mutuality of Philip and the eunuch. Let us practice such open and relational Christianity that throughout our lives we go as the eunuch does at the end, on our way rejoicing, and so that the people we encounter do the same. Amen.
Cover image: “Fresco of the Seckau Apocalypse by Herbert Boeckl (1952 – 1960) in the Angel’s Chapel at Seckau Abbey, Styria, Austria: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch” via somuchbible.com.